Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thomas Bernhard: Wittgenstein's Nephew

Wittgenstein's Nephew is an autobiographical short novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. I had first heard of him in one of the articles about the late German writer and one of my literary idols W G Sebald. Sebald considered him as an influence on his own writing although now after having read Wittgenstein's Nephew I can't imagine what could that influence be. They both share a deeply pessimistic worldview alright (like all Germanic writers I guess) but the sameness ends there (as far as I can extrapolate from reading this single book.) Sebald's melancholy resignation and a deep empathetic understanding of the human condition and the mysterious workings of the universe (Yes!) is replaced by a bitter and bilious fury in Bernhard. Their prose styles also couldn't be more different. Sebald's prose is classical and controlled while Bernhard believes in the sledgehammer approach, he drives home his point of view by repetition and rhetoric and the sheer fury of his anger and bitterness doesn't leave any room for any Sebaldian meditation or reflection. Bernhard also has little tolerance for cliches (not that Sebald is fond of them but he manages to avoid them completely) and one of the pleasures of reading Wittgenstein's Nephew is the way he makes fun of cliches by using them deliberately. Often many words and phrases are shown in italics or prefixed by qualifiers like "so-called" ("it was there that our friendship deepened".)

The novel is about the author-narrator's real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the famous philosopher of logic and language. Paul struggled with periodic bouts of madness and the author struggled with his lung disease throughout his life. In real life also Bernhard spent a couple of years in a sanatorium. Most of the book is about what Bernhard thinks of disease, both physical and mental. At one place in the book he divides the humanity into two mutually hostile and irreconcilable groups -- that of the healthy and the other of the sick. "The healthy never had the patience with the sick, nor, of course the sick ever had the patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten."

He also gives some background about the life of Paul who, at least the author claims, was a distinguished thinker in his own right. Also, I didn't know that the Wittgenstein family was one of the richest in Vienna. And Paul like his illustrious uncle donated most of his fortune to others and himself led a life of penury and supported himself with the generosity of his relatives. Also the wiki article says, "His [Ludwig's] family also had a history of intense self-criticism, to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies. Three of his four brothers committed suicide." And actually it is this self-criticism that is I think the central subject of the book alongwith the madness that results from it.

What is most strange about the book is that often sympathetic accounts of his friend's illness are punctuated by author's own rants against, well, basically everything. This is the author railing against nature:

I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive--for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can.

He doesn't think of doctors, specially those in the psychiatry profession very highly too:
Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal incompetence and cloak their charlatanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to employ the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killers than to their science.

He then says that all his life he has "dreaded nothing so much as falling into their hands" and that they are "a law unto themselves." He reserves even more bitter and angry words for the Austrian government and the official literary establishment.
Accepting a prize is in itself an act of perversity, my friend told me at the time, but accepting a state prize is the greatest.
In real life also Bernhard is famous as a "nest-fouler" in his native country and had forbade the staging of all his plays in Austria in his will. He despises the Austrian theatre management, the Austrian actors, directors who mangle his plays. Surprisingly he praises the Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire, Downfall) very highly. He says this after the theatre management refused to hire Ganz for the production of one of his plays:
Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed, decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all the decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded -- on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public -- though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world.

He hates coffee-houses and the literary people who go there. Not surprisingly he likes reading Schopenhauer, perhaps the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived. In the end he movingly, though still maintaining his highly anti-sentimental tone, describes the last days of his friend and then cruelly narrates how he shunned his friend like everyone else during his last days because he was "afraid of a direct confrontation with death." He then says:

I had traced his dying over over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul's dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth. It seems to me that I was basically nothing but the twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend's dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival. It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible.

Bernhard's bitter pessismism is curiously very entertaining and very addictive. Personally also I feel that if you can't drive away melancholy, at least be bitter and pissed off with everything. It is much better than Sebaldian passive resignation which is much more destructive and useless. Unfortunately these days I am in the Sebaldian mode, and even reading it didn't change my mental state. Anyway read it and decide for yourself.

And finally thanks to cheshire cat for recommending me the book! This looks like a nice site about his life and works.

19 comments:

Cheshire Cat said...

Glad you liked it, but actually, I just realized I made a mistake! The book I wanted to recommend to you was "The Loser" - "Wittgenstein's Nephew" is very good, but "The Loser" is a work of genius. I got confused because one of the characters in "The Loser" is rather Wittgensteinian...

Also, if you ever find Bernhard's novels too relentless, you should try "The Voice Imitator", a collection of short pieces, each no more than a page long. His mordant wit shown off to full effect.

Alok said...

My neighbourhood library has The Loser. It is the only other Bernhard book that it has I think. Will check it out soon.

The title sounds promising. Will it provide the kick that I despearately need to get out of the Sebaldian mode? I wonder. :)

jyothsnay said...

Delightful! I like the way you differentiated between Bernhard's *sledgehammer approach (I should use this term in my conversations with the client..smiles!)and Sebald's controlled reflections. had the briefest encounter with Bernhard's bitterness when I was reading Woodcutters(as gifted by my friends who admired me for those traceable melancholy around,especially in the evenings)
..I flitted back and forth when he indulged him with his bitter assessments as rendered by his brilliant tone..of course, I fell flaccid most times....got up to read ur review on the FROST...

Alok said...

Ah, so you are already familiar with Bernhard! Great!!

jyothsnay said...

a hint of sarcasm wafts through...?
as I said, I just shook hands with him and it was overwhelming that I stayed nonchalant for a while to wander back to normalcy to the pleasure of my heart...just a midget!

Alok said...

no sarcasm where none intended :)

jyothsnay said...

err...We only really face up to ourselves when we are afraid...I didnt say this!

I found "The Voice Imitator" quite interesting a read as recommended by Chesire...should walk upto the old gentleman to request this book for me...these days, he is a bit out of his withering skin, due to consistent n swift changes in my preferences within such a short frame of a time....well..

Anonymous said...

(The Loser is, as said elsewhere, a superior novel. Correction as well, depending on how you look at things. I second recommendations of The Voice Imitator.)

TB's "rants" (what's the rest of the book?) are more pointed than some sort of general rage. Consider the text that comes just before your first block quotation. The "nature" in question here is Austrian nature, the Austriation relation to nature, in which one takes the most spirited walks. It's, as you note, Austria that TB hates. (The newspaper passage is another delightful example.)

And while I can't deal with it here except impressionistically, TB's long, challenging sentences, solipsistic first-person reporting, and thematic repetition are also unquestionably metaphysical choices, not just stylistic or psychological devices. We can't forget it's WITTGENSTEIN we're dealing with here (Wittgenstein appears both in The Loser and in Correction), and Heidegger in there somewhere, I'm sure. Bernhardian prose is where the individual's inner life is driven after Beckett and after a post-WW2 failure to think through the meaning of the past.

Alok said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the comment.

TB's long, challenging sentences, solipsistic first-person reporting, and thematic repetition are also unquestionably metaphysical choices, not just stylistic or psychological devices.

True, I think this is what I felt too. You have put it very well. I have struggled with Beckett's novels in the past and actually haven't been able to read any of them fully yet. And I could see that Bernhard was experimenting something similar with language, in the sense of taking it away from the plain functional role of representing reality, psychological or otherwise. He is just funnier and more accessible than Beckett.

The only thing that irked me slightly, and which i think separates him from Beckett, was the manner in which he puts his "self" in the book. Most of it is self-mockery alright, but it is also jarring at many places. Perhaps that's the intended effect, I am not too sure. In the end it just made me feel that he is the kind of man I will run away from if I run into him in the street :)

jyothsna: You have read Voice Imitator too??

jyothsnay said...

Alok..no have not read "The Voice Imitator" but checked the link u prvded there as well as read through what chesire'd written...each story no more than a page long!path-breaking milieu..tickles book a lover!

what a pitiful situation for a communicator to be in when the said message loses its existence and meaning much before it could disturb the existence of the receiver!

Alok said...

what a pitiful situation for a communicator to be in when the said message loses its existence and meaning much before it could disturb the existence of the receiver!

that's a very Beckettian thought! That's why he advocates silence. Silence communicates more than words ever could, at least it doesn't leave any room for lies. There are too many words, too many sentences, too much noise, and as a result too many lies, in the world already.

Silence is so underrated!

jyothsnay said...

N u have to believe me....
that bit on communication (I said) just a spur of the moment reflection...I am not so much associated with Beckettian thought as you are...so when I was writing it down, I never know that I would ripples of Mr Beckett
whether or not you/the readers of your space agree with me, I want to say something :

we read many a thinker, philosopher, internalise their great reflections that are far ahead of their times, yet so charmingly they stayed relevant to us, this generation..cause they touched upn the universal human themes..having said, I say, read them,internalise them but dnot stay with them..u r not doing justice...build on those theories n learnings, strengthen your opinions, articulate them in your own style and practice them in real life..that's how we bring the true essence alive!
*strictly personal opinion

Alok said...

Not to worry. In any case it is not a very original thought. Even a kid would tell you that we don't always mean what we say or what we write. And that the relationship between language and truth is pretty complex. Beckett or other thinkers just say it well, and it makes more sense when they do it than when ordinary mortals like you or me say the same thing.

Antonia said...

wittgensteins neffe is one of my favourites of Bernhard...but I would say there are great differences between Sebald and wouldnt say there is passive resignation in Sebald only for her is let's say more moderate....in the end of Bernhard's Glenn Gould book is more resignation than in the whole Sebald...Bernhard is a little kid compared to Sebald...

Alok said...

Ah, I knew I might be wrong because this is only the first book of him that I have read. I am going to pick up The Loser next. Will try it out this weekend.

"Bernhard is a little kid compared to Sebald"

Do you mean the other way round? it is good to find out who of the two is more depressed and melancholy. :)

And glad to see you back! Hope your long vacation was great! :)

Antonia said...

hi alok...
yes nice to be here again and to read your long elaborated texts even tho I always seem to slightly disgree:)
yes of course....bernhard the little kid...I meant to be a lil provocative...yet tho...teh difference in temperament...it is easy to say, for instance someone like bernhard who so often shouts out how much everything sucks - to see this attitude as less melancholic...when you on teh other hand have the much more filigrane and delicate texts of Sebald, where you as well could find anger (for instance in ring of saturn at the end how he brings in the story of the silkworms(dont know whether worms is the right word)), in such a reticent description lies much more strength in contrast to bernhard's rather obvious statements...not to say bernhard cant be delicate, too - but my reading impression is that Sebald is able to dive far more into depth bernhard.I also wouldnt say they are so melancholy, maybe they are, but also, you know this passage in wittgensteins nephew where they hunt the Neue Zuercher, thats so much life affirmation there, or the love for music....even tho bernhard in his books doesnt look like he doesnt have liked life a lot or the things he doesnt like seem to be many...but also in 'woodcutters', how he speaks about virginia woolf there or in 'extincion' about ingeborg bachmann, tehre you can see he liked life and wasnt at all melancholy, he only just was pissed by a lot of things I would say, similar like Sebald...you see on the surface a lot of destruction, melancholy,despair and behind that a blind, devastating and wild joyful longing for the beauty of life which due to a difference in temperament finds a different expression in Sebald and Bernhard and when you compare bernahrds oeuvre with the one of sebald, Bernhard writes 20 books that are all almost similar and sebald who has written much less, his books have a bit more variety, also his essays....somehow he was able with his style to grasp depth on a much deeper or wider extent than Bernhard...not that he didnt do this, but he was more like one sort of ray, one direction, doggedly, while Sebald did go more into space [saturn :)]....oh this is getting long, one could speak hours about all those little nuances....I like them both, sebald and bernhard....maybe it is just the different temperament of them both...maybe it is that

Alok said...

thanks antonia for the detailed comment. I love Sebald's works and your comment has made me remember my own experiences of reading him, specially The Rings of Saturn which I absolutely love. I think this book is slightly different from other three Sebald books in its scope and ambition. The other three books, in the way they mix biographical narratives with host of other things are comparatively less mysterious and resemble Bernhard (of wittgenstein's nephew) more.

I also agree with you when you point out affirmations in Bernhard. Even his portrayal of the friendship is moving and very "positive" even though it is often undercut by most bitter self-reproaches. It only makes the whole thing more honest and unsentimental.

steve said...

Actually Sebald's style owes a lot to Bernhard, particularly in "Austerlitz" (his least best novel in my opinion). I wrote about it here:
http://www.inwriting.org/weblog/archives/000160.html

Alok said...

thanks for the link Steve. My reaction was more instinctive and based on the feeling I had of the personalities and the attitudes of the narrators, rather than technical aspects of their prose.

There is indeed some similarity between the two in the sense of what they are doing with the language and how they view literature...